Tuesday, 5 March 2013
Here in rural Ireland the winter is a different kind of harsh – rarely snowy or below freezing, but always chilly, damp and dark. We live at the same latitude where polar bears are native in the Western Hemisphere, and while the Gulf Stream keeps us temperate, the light changes are still subarctic and the winter landscape bleak and gothic. So our Lenten fast brings a literal ray of sunshine and blue skies, when Ireland stops looking like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road and actually begins to look like those inspirational calendars of Ireland. The hedgerows flush with green again, wildflowers cover the fields and, best of all for me, it is nettle season.
The month or two of nettle shoots means I can take a short daily walk and gather massive bushels of extremely healthy food with little effort. Almost as numerous and well-known as grass or clover, they flourish in massive clusters on roadsides and riverbanks, lining field edges and sprouting through pavement cracks.
Brushing against them leaves painful welts, and every child here learns early to give nettles a wide berth – they are covered in hairs that are actually tiny hypodermic needles, which inject the same formic acid as in fire ants’ stings.
The traditional remedy for the sting is dock-leaf, whose broad leaves always grow next to nettles and are its cure – my daughter knew when she was still a toddler to find it in the grass, crush it and rub it on stings. Perhaps its astringent nature cancels out the inflammation – I haven’t found any scientific research to “prove” that it helps – but it has worked for generations, and works for us.
This may not make nettles sound very appetizing, but cooking them destroys the stingers, and the plants themselves are amazingly nutritious – a hundred grams of them are only 36 calories but carry six grams of protein and are high in Vitamins A, C, and K. Europeans used them as a tonic, an infusion of vitamins at the end of winter, as well as for arthritis, prostate problems, heart conditions and a multitude of other ailments.
Crushing the stingers also eliminates the stingers, so you can seize them quickly and not get stung -- hence the expression “to grab the nettle.” I am told that some practiced souls even crush the leaves quickly and eat them raw with no ill effects to fingers or mouth. Me, I find gloves simpler.
I would not try to eat them as a salad, but they can be made into tea, soup, sautéed as a vegetable side dish, mixed with scrambled eggs or pancakes, and I have heard of people making nettle lasagna, nettle pesto and nettle kim chi. The plant’s grassy and slightly fishy flavour goes well with seafood – say, nettle soup with prawns (or shrimp, if you live in America). I have juiced nettles into a drink very like wheatgrass – not my taste, but there are many wheatgrass fans out there.
Farmers here used to soak the cooked plant with sourdough starter to make nettle beer, and I see no reason it could not be mixed into bread as herbs are. I know farmers in County Wicklow who make an excellent nettle cheese by mixing the plant into the curds before ageing, creating a green spiderweb latticework in every slice.
They have other uses: Their fibrous stalks can be stripped of leaves, squeezed of juice and wound together to make a makeshift rope in the woods. The stalks can be soaked in water until the fleshy parts decay, as people soak flax to make linen, and combed into thread – I have seen whole dresses sewn of nettle fiber.
Ireland might be the ideal home for nettles, as they love moist, rich soil, cool conditions and cleared land. They exist but are less ubiquitous in Southern Europe and North America, and you can probably plant them in pots. If they don’t already grow around your home I don’t recommend planting them in the ground – in an Irish climate like Oregon they might run rampant, and in a drier one they might never grow – but they might thrive under control in a pot, as mint does. Some gardeners recommend them for attracting early aphids -- not because they like aphids, but because the pests draw early ladybirds (ladybugs to Americans) that, hopefully, stay to help through the summer.
When you collect nettles, of course, don’t take them from near a road, or from land you think might have been sprayed with pesticides. Most nettle-pickers select only the delicate shoots in early spring, and if you snap them off more shoots grow back – but the whole plant is edible, and I continue to pick leaves into late summer. Rinse them using a spoon or some other tool to stir them in the water, so as not to be stung or get your gloves wet. Once you have rinsed and drained them, cook them well – say, boiling for at least 10 minutes -- or the stingers won’t completely dissolve.
A common approach to nettle soup is to sauté one large, white diced onion in butter over low heat for a few minutes, and as it turns golden stir in a clove of garlic, shredded through the fine holes in your grater. Peel and dice a medium potato – about a centimetre on a side – and stir that in too. Then add about 100 grams of nettle shoots and pour stock over the whole thing. Let it boil, bring it down to a simmer and let it cook until the potatoes are soft. Then you can blitz the whole thing with a food processor, if you like, add a 100 ml or so of cream and serve.
Sometimes I take the more direct route of dumping them into boiling stock – beef, vegetable, whatever – cooking them a few minutes, blitzing them and pouring them into a fine strainer over a bowl. The result is a drink -- savoury nettle broth -- and a thick soup that I can eat, mix or freeze for lunch.
I’m not a purist – we grow much of our food or buy it from local farmers, but we also go to the supermarket or eat out once in a while, and I don’t ask the waitress to trace my food back to the Third World. I’m also not a survivalist or a bushcraft master – I work at a computer in an office, I’ve ever tried to eat exclusively off the land, and I doubt I know even a tenth of the local plants. But even my meager knowledge allows me to look at a field and see a cornucopia of resources.
Why is this important, you ask? Because most of us put food in our mouths at least a few times a day, and it is usually food that was created in ways that cannot and should not last. The corn may well have been sown, watered, and plucked from the earth without ever touching a human hand, using machines that run on liquefied dinosaur biomass. The vegetables may have been uprooted by a migrant worker who will die young. The chicken patty probably came from an animal that lived a short life mutilated in darkness.
Yet you are surrounded by food. You probably have nettles in your area, but even if you don’t, maybe you have daisies, dandelions, clover, sorrel, brambles, berries, goosefoot, cowslips and dozens of other plants. Maybe you have local hazels, cobnuts and walnuts – even acorns can be made edible. There are local animals to eat, local sources of water, ways to warm up or keep cool. How do I know this? Because people lived for the first 99 percent of humanity’s history, almost everywhere on Earth – in deserts, on tundra, and certainly in the forests and fields that are now America and Europe -- when all food, all water, all shelter, was wild.
That knowledge was passed through the generations, held not just by every Irish farmer, but perhaps by every Druid and Cro-Magnon before them. Today, in a single lifetime, the chain has been broken – only older people tend to remember the uses of nettles, and in America such knowledge has often vanished altogether. If we get smacked down by a fuel shortage, a disease that keeps us home, a climate catastrophe that hits agribusiness, or some other crisis to our society’s bloodstream of tankers and trucks, the metric tones of healthy food all around us may not be recognized, and might lay unused even as families go hungry.
Photo from Geograph.ie. Originally published in April 2009.